Originally published at ABC Arts Online, March 2015
If the stories are true, then Morris dancing in Australia endured some inauspicious beginnings. There is certain evidence that as early as 1796, a year of several violent exchanges between Aboriginals and white settlers (and the year Australia’s first beer was brewed), some convicts dared to caper in Parramatta, only to be given a flogging as punishment.
There is also a suggestion that Morris dancing occurred in Melbourne in the 1930s, yet it was not until the 1970s, on the back of the nationwide folk revival, that Morris gathered momentum and teams, or ‘sides’, were established. The hotbed of Morris in those days was undoubtedly Perth, with the oldest continuous side to this day being Perth Morris Men, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2013.
“Most of the original sides were single-sex, and generally danced in the Cotswold or North West traditions,” says Tim Beckett, current Squire of national body the Australian Morris Ring. “Over the years, there has been a welcome shift to mixed sides and a strong growth in the Border (Welsh) tradition. Many sides now dance a number of traditions – Border and Cotswold is the usual mix – but will have a particular preference for one.”
He adds that there are, surprisingly, just 200-300 Morris dancers in Australia, spread across 26 sides.
An ingrained part of English folk culture for centuries, and still fairly healthy today in the UK, the origins of Morris dancing are hazy and inexact. It is generally accepted that the art has Moorish roots (the word ‘Morris’ evolving from ‘Moorish’), while there are possible references to Morris in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well (1604-5). Morris dancing also has associations with paganism, thanks largely to one of the most important days on the Morris calendar being May Day and its celebration of fertility.
The modern understanding of the art, however, stems from pivotal British folklorist Cecil Sharp, who despite censoring the sexual and supposedly heathen aspects of Morris, was responsible for a rise in the dancing’s popularity in the first years of the 20th century. His research was mainly confined to the Cotswold style of Morris, and it is this style – drawn from the picturesque Cotswold region of England – that dominated in years to come.
Cotswold is widely danced in Australia, along with North West style (originating from England’s north-west) and Border style (from the English counties that border Wales). These three main forms distinguish themselves from each other by different attire and props and, to a certain degree over the years, gender.
Michelle Cowans is among the younger dancers with the Albion Fair side in Sydney, which has evolved to be all-female, through happenstance rather than policy. Albion Fair dances the North West style.
“I think the North West style of Morris is more feminine,” she says, “and certainly some of our dances are indicative of working women in factories in northern England, but having said that, many of the other North West sides in the country have male members.”
Though many Australian Morris sides were determinedly male-only at their inception in the 1970s, according to Beckett these restrictions fell away during the 1980s and 1990s, with only three such sides remaining today.
“There aren’t really dances for males and females per se,” says Cowans. “Everyone can dance any dance. Traditionally the dances are for men, so women wouldn’t have been doing any of them, but I think women have always had an active part in Morris dancing in Australia.
“There’s more a distinction between dances from different styles. You can really see the difference between Cotswold Morris and North West Morris, for example. Cotswold dancers wear bells on their legs and dance with sticks or hankies. We wear wooden clogs and dance with bells, ribbon sticks or garlands. When we dance out we need a hard surface, so you can hear our clogs on the ground. Cotswold can dance on grass, because it’s more about the jingle-jangle of the bells and the sound of the sticks clashing.”
Beckett says that though English ex-pats still make up a large percentage of Morris dancers in this country, Australian sides have incorporated various local flavours into their styles, to the degree that there is now something of a general Australian Morris way.
“Australian Morris tends to be more robust and generally danced faster than its English parent, and a little less tied to the bible of Morris dance, Lionel Bacon’s A Handbook of Morris Dances,” he says.
“Australian folk tunes have infiltrated the Morris repertoire, and dances written in Australia, but within the existing traditions, are now in the set lists of most Australian sides. For example, ‘Bound For South Australia’, danced to the tune of the same name, was written by the Adelaide Morris Men and has now spread across the country and to New Zealand.”
And while more alternative takes on Morris dancing are gathering momentum in the UK - through sides with a more devotedly pagan bent, or with Gothic leanings – there is no such innovation in Australia, with the exception, Beckett says, of “a bit of Steampunk Morris, but within the existing traditions”. It is also interesting to note that while Morris dancing in Australia is, as you’d expect, overwhelmingly white and Anglo-Celtic, Beckett has danced with people of Italian, Vietnamese, Indian and Chinese extraction. “It’s pretty welcoming and creed and caste simply don’t matter,” he says.
The life of an Australian Morris dancer, taking Cowans and Albion Fair as an example, entails practicing once a week, and the occasional ‘dance out’, sometimes with fellow Sydney side Black Joak. These generally take place in town centres, shopping centres, fetes and civic occasions. May Day remains a key date for Morris dancers, while also important are ‘Ales’, which are dances at a side’s AGM, or the celebration of an anniversary – Black Joak’s 10th took place in November 2014.
Major annual events for Albion Fair include Bondi’s Festival of the Winds, the Shakespeare in Gloucester festival on the NSW mid-north coast (sadly not scheduled for 2015) and, as for many Australian sides, the National Folk Festival in Canberra, which takes place every Easter.
“The National Folk Festival is very important as it gives the Morris the chance to get a number of sides together to showcase particular traditions or styles, to teach and learn new dances and to dance together,” says Beckett. “A ‘massed’ dance with upward of 100 dancers and a combined Morris band is an awesome sight to behold.”
Such events are vital to exposing dancing to new audiences and, crucially, potential new members. As with Morris dancing in the UK, Australian sides face something of a crisis when it comes to regeneration. Albion Fair’s youngest member is in her 30s, while in Cowans’ five years with them, only three new members have joined and stayed. “The greying of Morris is an issue,” says Beckett, “especially in the single-sex sides. There are, encouragingly, enough younger members of the mixed sides – particularly mixed Cotswold/Border sides – to ensure Morris will live on. I’m less sanguine about the single-sex sides.”
The culture, history and symbolism aside, the primary appeal of Morris dancing, for many, appears to be the opportunity to bond with others through this shared challenge (and it is a challenge, with Beckett describing broken knuckles and plenty of blood during stick dances), as well as the rush of physical elation that can come from any form of dancing.
Cowans says, “I enjoy the attachment to a part of my heritage – I’m British born but not bred, and there is something wonderfully pagan about the dances. I also enjoy being part of a group and I like the women I dance with very much. I like that Morris dancing is accessible, in that anyone of any age, shape or size can do it.
“However, mostly, I like the feeling of joy which dancing, any dancing, can provide.”
The National Folk Festival takes places at Exhibition Park, Canberra, over the Easter weekend.